Middle School teachers at Feynman School have every educator’s dream: the opportunity to teach to students’ capability, not just cookie-cutter curriculum. This year, they also faced every teacher’s darkest nightmare: a complete implosion of all their bespoke lesson plans.

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on students’ mental health, Feynman faculty swiftly restructured each lesson to allot more space for social-emotional support. Then teachers modeled the adaptability and innovation we encourage in our students by reimagining many of the middle school’s most exciting projects so that they could still be performed in a Hy-Flex setting, which means that most students remain in the traditional in-person classroom setting while a handful of remote classmates synchronously collaborate via Zoom. 

Still, educators of gifted learners around the world were left with an ill-researched, urgent question: How do you keep gifted students motivated to remain engaged and enthusiastic about learning despite the emotional and logistical hurdles of living through a constant crisis?

The answer, ultimately, is that in order to make this year feel as “normal” and exciting as any other for Feynman middle schoolers, we had to lean into our passion for problem-solving. Creativity has proven paramount to stoke students’ natural curiosity. While some schools struggled to implement the new technology and pedagogical approaches in their classrooms, Feynman faculty were able to actually leverage the Hy-Flex model to introduce more collaborative projects facilitated by students’ developing technological savvy. What’s more, Feynman middle schoolers rose to the occasion, drawing on a sense of commitment to their classroom community and demonstrating their best effort on even the most emotionally taxing days.

In STEM, these students took on the rigorous work of researching, proposing, and modeling a metropolis on the moon as part of the Future City competition. Each year, Feynman middle schoolers excel in this engineering competition, which tasks students with creating an original city 100 years in the future. This year, the Feynman School team took second place overall for the Mid-Atlantic region, first place for land surveying, and first place for their essay. What’s more, they achieved all of this despite 50% of the class collaborating remotely. In a remarkable display of tenacity, the middle school team coordinated the research, engineering design, and planning process over video meetings, unable to rely on the success of their predecessors, as the entire competition went digital in the wake of the pandemic. Still, one unchanged facet of the competition was the requirement of building a physical model of the city, so students had to engineer a schedule in which the labor could be divided to accommodate social distancing and remote students’ involvement. Consequently, this year’s competition required more problem solving through every facet of the process, and the team emerged not only extremely successful but also supremely confident in their ability to overcome unexpected hurdles in the coordination of engineering design.

In English class, 7th and 8th graders competed in bioethics debates, imagining themselves as ethics consultants for big tech, the federal government, and pharmaceutical companies. Pairs of students prepared short films, essays, and presentations to parse the real-world ethical dilemmas we face as innovation creates unprecedented and unlegislated possibilities. Teams then employed carefully crafted rhetorical strategies in heated debates over the culpability of self-driving cars in cases of manslaughter, the ethical implications of gene-editing, and the biological cost of developing novel cures. From research to argumentation to presentation, these students engaged in sophisticated Kantian, virtue, and consequentialist ethical discourse most students wouldn’t see until advanced courses in 11th or 12th grade. The necessity of digitized assignments and collaboration over Zoom meant that these students learned to schedule meetings, perform online research, and explore new creative software in an organic, self-motivated, and open-ended manner. The latest findings in gifted education demonstrate that students learn best when given as few limitations as possible–when they have to do the work of narrowing the scope of a project themselves in addition to the processing and application of new content. In other words, gifted kids love to learn, and they’ll invest time and energy into gaining and applying knowledge if you simply spark their curiosity and let them run with it. This certainly proved true in the English ethics unit, as Feynman middle schoolers admitted to staying up all hours delving into articles on gene-editing or perfecting their short films out of pure joy for the learning process (and perhaps a little friendly competition with their classmates).

In Computer Science, middle schoolers get to play with their proficiency in Python–literally. Throughout the school year, students developed advanced skills in programming. Now, they’re using this knowledge to code creative final projects, including choose-your-own-adventure stories, fortune tellers, and even animated video games. In June, the middle schoolers will present these projects to the entire Feynman School community, leveraging our newfound literacy in large-scale video meetings to show off their accomplishments without crowding an auditorium. As the pandemic demonstrated so clearly over the course of the past year, innovations in technology can prove absolutely vital in keeping us connected to our communities and engaged in learning through challenging times. Feynman middle schoolers are using their Python projects–and the way in which they present them–to pave the way for a tech-forward future.

As the school year winds down, Feynman Middle School projects continue to ramp up. In the face of seemingly impossible circumstances, faculty and students have proven that creative problem solving remains one of the most valuable skills we can learn.